Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners needs to put an end to per diems
As tight as money is for local government these days, it’s amazing how loose the controls are over per diem spending by the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners.
While a review of per diems collected by commissioners remains underway, it’s already clear to us that many of them submitted and received per diem reimbursements they weren’t eligible for.â€¨ â€¨
The per diem issue was raised in the fiercely contested race for the 52nd state House, which Mark Ouimet won handily on Tuesday. Democrats accused Ouimet, the Republican candidate, of inappropriately collecting per diems and mileage during the time he served on the county board. â€¨ â€¨
A long-standing county policy allows commissioners to collect a per diem of $25 and mileage for attending board meetings or meetings of certain committees they serve on. A preliminary review by a staff member in the office of County Clerk Larry Kestenbaum listed $16,600 in per diems and mileage that Ouimet collected between 2005 and 2009 as ineligible or questionable under the policy.
â€¨While Ouimet, who served as vice chairman of the county board, by far had the most per diems collected, the staff review also listed the per diems of nine other commissioners as ineligible or questionable, in amounts ranging from $4,861 to $56. Ronnie Peterson, D-Ypsilanti, was the only commissioner who submitted no requests for per diem payments during the period reviewed.
While Kestenbaum was charitable in saying the rules for collecting per diems weren’t entirely clear until this year, the policy is pretty straightforward. It lists a number of specific boards and committees and if you are appointed to serve on one of them, you can collect a per diem. We don’t see the ambiguity in that.â€¨
What’s lacking was not clarity, but accountability. Basic financial controls demand that requests for expense reimbursements should be reviewed by someone who has clear authority to challenge any expense that does not appear to be appropriate. In this case, reimbursement requests from county commissioners went to a staff member in the Clerk’s Office, who simply put them through to be paid. We can’t fault the staffer, who didn’t have the necessary authority to question expenses. We fault the absence of adequate controls.â€¨
â€¨While the issue of per diems became a political hot potato during the election season, this inappropriate collecting of payments went on for years. Early this year, commissioners took modest steps to curb the problem when they voted to limit per diem and travel reimbursements to about $3,500 a year per commissioner.â€¨
But much more needs to be done to curb this problem. County Administrator Verna McDaniel has asked a senior auditor from the Rehmann Robson public accounting firm to do an independent, non-partisan review of per diem and mileage payments to commissioners. When the report is released, commissioners should repay the county for any per diems they inappropriately collected. In fact, some have already done so.
Even while that review is taking place, the board should be taking additional steps to guard against future abuses of the system. At the very least, it should put some clear accountability into the process of reviewing per diem reimbursement requests. McDaniel has said she plans to propose a new process for submitting per diem and mileage requests, and that would be welcome.â€¨
However, the more obvious and preferable solution would be for the county board to do away with per diem payments altogether. Per diems are a vestige of a time gone by.
County commissioners already collect a salary of $15,000, and that is more than adequate to offset the out-of-pocket expenses that they incur while serving in office. Other local elected officials receive little or no salary, and yet don’t collect per diems. County commissioners shouldn’t either, particularly in these tough budget times.â€¨
Commissioner Leah Gunn, D-Ann Arbor, who stopped taking per diems in 2008, has said she will revive a resolution she offered in 2009 calling on commissioners to eliminate per diems and travel reimbursements. This is an idea that’s well overdue. Abolish the per diems now.â€¨â€¨
(Editor’s note: Bob Guenzel, who serves as a community representative on our Editorial Board, is the former administrator for Washtenaw County and recused himself from our deliberations on this issue.)